Category Archives: Essays

Essaying: Dave Zoby’s “Café Misfit”

(Dave Zoby’s “Café Misfit” appears in issue 37.1–the Spring 2014–issue of The Missouri Review; it received the journal’s 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for Best Essay.)

The latest issue of The Missouri Review arrived the other day, and it contains the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors Prize winners. “Café Misfit” by Dave Zoby received the award for Best Essay, a piece that perfectly captures the Old Virginia, a bar and restaurant near Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Zoby worked as the bar manager while in graduate school at VCU.

Though I consider Texas my home state since I lived there from the age of one to the age of twenty-three, I was born in Richmond. So I felt especially drawn to descriptions of my birth home, especially of the food the area provides: catfish from Yorktown; cilantro from LaPrell Nursery; baguettes from Melchers. My mother’s family is from Culpepper, and Zoby describes getting the freshest pork for your roe from a Culpepper farmer’s smokehouse.

Every town or neighborhood has a place for the local outsiders and eccentrics, and the Old Virginia was that place. Joe, the proprietor, puts patrons before profits, much to Zoby’s chagrin as he tries to maintain the business side of his job. This is an essay about characters, the characters who drop in and work at the Old Virginia along with the Old Virginia itself. And then there’s Zoby, who is also searching and finds a temporary dock along with everyone else in the essay.

Some quotations I had to underline while reading:

“They were Italians from Philly: there was no hiding it. They drove imposing black sedans with tinted windows. They wore the tight mustaches of card dealers and circus barkers. Even their shirts, silk and buttoned low enough to let their wiry chest hair escape, told a story of strange migration” (42).

“Patrons at the bar would take note of the incredible volumes of beer and liquor and, always, laughter flowing from the kitchen and the outbursts that rose up from there. I discouraged paying customers from wandering back there, for once they met Joe, they became one of his friends and never paid for another drink, though their lives improved radically” (49).

“I had never thought about it before, but it was true. The Old Virginia was not a restaurant but a place for lost souls who needed the dignity of a job, even a symbolic one, to tether them to the world” (52).

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Essaying: Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed”

(Tod Goldberg‘s “When They Let Them Bleed” is included in Best American Essays 2013; it originally appeared in issue 13 of Hobart)

I’ve written about Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage” and his adept use of the section break. I read Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed” the same week I read Kerstetter, and Goldberg takes the section break and turns it up to eleven. There are nineteen different sections in this essay, and I might be off by one or two. I would call this essay a collage or mosaic except I normally think of those sub-genres as filled with seemingly disconnected sections, and Goldberg’s is more cohesive than essays that tend to fall in those categories. He just uses the different sections to explore the same situation from as many perspectives as possible: the death of Duk Koo Kim.

Quite simply, Duk Koo Kim died from a punch he received in a boxing match with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini at Caesars Palace on November 13, 1982 (Kim died a few days later in the hospital). Goldberg watched the match on TV; he was eleven. He describes how he was a cutter before we knew what cutters were. He would place the tip of his pocketknife into the girth of his stomach, wishing he could just cut the fat away. It has also been years since he’s seen his father, but his father has given him a subscription to Sports Illustrated, and Goldberg would meticulously remove the covers from the magazine and plaster them on his bedroom walls. He’s a kid in pain drawn to sports heroes.

Then he watches someone get pummeled to death on TV. Of course, that event sticks with him. Parts of this essay explore what he learns about Kim and how he was born and grew up in South Korea before he fought and died in Las Vegas. A lot of things changed after this event. They changed for Kim’s family. They changed for Mancini. They changed for boxing. They even changed for Sports Illustrated (Goldberg counts the number of times boxing was featured on the magazine’s cover before and after the Mancini-Kim bout). Of course, they changed for Goldberg, too. The power of this essay is in how he mines the ripple effects of this one event. I don’t think he left anything out, but his essay in no way feels long or drawn out. It just feels deep and smart.

A few passages I marked:

“I can’t think of Duk Koo Kim, who weighed 135 pounds and was five foot six and was fighting for the lightweight championship of the world, without thinking about how at the same time I was eleven years old and stood just four foot eight and weighed 135 pounds, about how I would squeeze the layers of fat on my stomach against the frame of my shower and imagine slamming the door hard enough to just cleave the skin off, how it would solve so many problems, how lucky it would be just to melt into the crowd of students at my school, to be an invisible boy” (206).

“What’s a knockout? Technically, it’s a stroke. A very small stroke, but a stroke no less” (207).

“For many years I have wondered why their deaths don’t haunt me as much as this stranger’s death, this boy who died by the calculated risk of becoming a boxer, and I can only conclude that it’s all about distance. I didn’t see either of my friends die—though in some respect I should have at least seen the signs, but I was a boy too, and they were boys, and you can’t expect boys to see things like pain and depression as clearly as retrospect would like us to believe—I just stood there in the aftermath and wondered why I was thinking of a dead boxer” (214).

“I stopped hurting myself after Duk Koo Kim died. I don’t know why. I still have the pocketknife, however. It’s in an old tackle box that’s out in my garage. It’s strange: I have a tendency to hold on to things that are relics of bad memories, as if by knowing where they are I’ll somehow be able to avoid the unlucky occurrence of running into them and being overwhelmed” (215).

Essaying: Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage”

(Jon Kerstetter‘s “Triage” is included in  Best American Essays 2013; it originally appeared in issue 13.2 of River Teeth.)

One powerful tool available to essayists–and other writers–is the section break. It can provide the reader with a chance to pause and absorb what she or he has just read. It can turn the essay on its ear and take the reader in a whole new direction, one that may not seem to relate to what has come before. It can allow the writer to explore what has already been written from a new angle, telescoping the lens farther from or closer to the subject and providing a new perspective.

In “Triage,” Jon Kerstetter breaks his essay into six distinct sections, most just a couple of pages long. He starts at a combat surgical hospital in Baghdad during October 2003. It’s filled with soldiers who have been injured in IED attacks throughout the city. Most of the soldiers followed the conventional path of surgery to post-op to ICU. Medical staff are exhausted but moving as fast and efficiently as possible. There’s one soldier in triage. He was expectant, meaning no one knew what to do to help him, and everyone expected him to die. The essay goes from there to explore what puts one patient on the list for immediate surgery and another patient in the category of “expectant” and waiting quietly in the triage room.

The second section begins with the dictionary definition of triage, a move that makes writing instructors like me cringe, but he delves deep into the definition, works through its etymological history, and exposes the fraught meanings behind it. He describes the two weeks he spent in a Combat Casualty Care Course designed to teach medical officers how to decide which patients go into one room and which go into another. Then there’s a section that details the different categories the military uses to classify patients. The penultimate section is where he reflects upon the relationship between what he was taught to do on the battlefield and what it actually means to decide someone is beyond hope. The final, brief section shows Kerstetter today, still struggling but well aware he is alive when others are not.

At a writing conference, I once heard a writer say that section breaks were a sign of a lazy writer. I was immediately offended. He argued that the best essayists know how to weave everything together into a cohesive unit. Perhaps because I began writing as a poet, the idea of a section or stanza break does not seem to be a sign of a weak writer but is just another tool, one that can be used with a heavy hand or one that can be wielded deftly. Kerstetter’s “Triage” is an example of deftness.

Some lines to ponder:

“The captain in charge of the expectant soldier’s unit told the general and me that this was their first soldier to be killed–then he corrected himself and said this was the first soldier in their unit to be assigned to triage” (124).

“In the end, it was decided that my decision to shoot, while potentially serving a greater need, may have been a bit aggressive, but that it was in fact my decision, and my decision met the needs of the mission. All ethical considerations aside, I felt that I understood the necessity and the theory of triage. I understood it as part of my job” (127).

“If the triage officer calculates that a patient falls into the expectant category, treatment is withheld in order to allow medical teams to concentrate more efficiently on those soldiers with potentially survivable injuries. Preserving the fighting force is the central tenet of the process” (127).

“Saving lives is the endpoint of all triage. Let one life go, save three others, or five, or maybe ten. The ratios don’t matter, the benefits do. And a benefit in war always comes at a cost” (128).

Essaying: Sarah A Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping”

I first read Sarah A. Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping” from Best American Travel Writing 2013 over Christmas. The title caught my eye quickly, and the essay pulled me in from the start. It’s a quick read (you can find the whole thing archived at The Atlantic, where it was originally published in September 2012), but it sure has stuck with me, and it generated some great discussion when I taught it a few weeks ago. We all kept circling around the same question, though: what in the hell is going on here?

Bedouins who live in the Sinai peninsula kidnap tourists because the Bedouins have relatives in Egyptian prisons. They hope that agreeing to release the tourists will lead to the release of their relatives. But it rarely works. The tourists are treated well, so well that some of them comment on what a great experience they had being served tea and sometimes lamb by their kidnappers. The kidnappers even refer to their acts as “tourist safaris.” They do want to treat the tourists well so as not to incur the wrath of the government but also so as not to incur anger from the fellow members of their tribes. In the end, it works out for everyone but the Bedouins who often do not get their relatives out of prison. It’s confounding to a Westerner like me, but it’s also not like I’ve ever had to fight for my family under such circumstances.

Some great quotations from the essay that I hope make you want to read more:

“In recent months, the security vacuum has emboldened a handful of Bedouin in the southern half of the peninsula to lobby for the release of jailed kinsmen via a novel tactic: kidnapping foreign tourists and using them as bargaining chips. Between February and early July, Bedouin tribesmen took three pairs of Americans, three South Koreans, a pair of Brazilians, and a Singaporean on “safaris” lasting between a few hours and several days” (65).

“The recent rash of kidnappings is well timed to mortify the Egyptian government. The country’s economy is already in free fall, and beach tourism is a key source of foreign currency. So the government has worked to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible. But a strange thing has happened: some of those freed tourists have described their captivity in surprisingly glowing terms” (66)

“He added that he’d packed bread, cheese, and juice for his captives. What would he have done if they had become hysterical? Attwa said he would have left them, but they didn’t cry, so he brought them here” (67)

“The kidnapper explained that in addition to the customary tea and coffee, he had served his guests roast lamb, a dish usually reserved for special occasions. He said his uncle remained in prison” (67)

Essaying: Angela Morales’ “The Girls in My Town”

Another fascinating essay in Best American Essays 2013 is “The Girls in My Town” by Angela Morales (it originally appeared in The Southwest Review). It is written in thirteen sections, which one of my students astutely pointed out matches the age of her daughter at the time Morales wrote the essay. That’s important because becoming a mother is what this essay is all about.

But it’s not about motherhood in general. It’s about teenaged girls becoming mothers, especially the teenaged girls who surround Morales in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country according to Morales. She is surrounded by girls who are growing up surrounded by poverty, drug abuse, and everything else you can imagine.

Morales lives down the street from the “bad” high school, the one kids go to when they cannot go to their home school. In a lot of places, these schools are know as the bad-boy high schools, but Morales points out that this is the bad-girl high school with a program for pregnant teens where they learn life skills related to nutrition and childhood development. When the school day ends, the girls ignore what they’ve been learning and hang out at the donut shop across the street.

The major theme in the essay centers on the extent to which our lives are predestined by circumstances beyond our control. Does the future really lay out in front of all adolescents? Or do some have more options than others? Are these girls living in the middle of a cycle of love and loss they and their children doomed to repeat? Morales tells the story of La Llorona, the woman who drowned her children to be with the man she loves, but he rejects her. She drowns herself, and the legend of her wandering waterways looking for her children and crying out in pain spreads. Morales also tells the story of a teenaged mother in their town who drowns her child. This is not legend. The dead child is proof.

On the day Morales gives birth to her daughter, she shares a hospital room with a fourteen-year-old girl who also gives birth to a daughter. Morales has no idea what happens to that girl or her child, but she can make some educated assumptions. After all, she’s been watching such stories unfold throughout her life.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the essay.

“We drive on Highway 99 in search of something to look at and find FOR LEASE signs, abandoned western-themed restaurants, and peeling billboards advertising brand-new housing developments that never panned out—a picture of a two-story tract home adorned with a Spanish tile fountain, a father holding a plump toddler, a chemical-green lawn, a happy yellow dog” (171).

“They are told that they will not be alone and that caring for a child requires both strength and humility. We are your support system, the girls are told. We are here for you” (174).

“Unlike my grandmothers, the girls in this town have access to birth control pills, integrated schools with specialized programs, and guidance counselors who are supposed to tout the merits of college—even to the brown and black kids. The girls in my town have more choices, though some people might argue that when you’re young and poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find” (176).

“And if you can love babies when there’s nobody else to love, sometimes you hurt babies when there’s nobody else to hurt. You don’t mean to, exactly–you just can’t control it. Maybe it’s payback for all that’s ever been done to you” (181).

“But babies get annoying real fast. They get bigger and then they squirm away from you and then they call you names like butthead and they take off their shoes and hurl them at you and as soon as you get the shoes laced up again, they pry them off and toss them behind the dresser, and inevitably you lose that shoe and now you’ve got four mismatched shoes without mates” (186).

Essaying: Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge”

Growing up in the 70s, a lot of my early reading consisted of TimeLife books and encyclopedias aimed at children and adolescents. Even today, I’ll spend an hour or so diving into Wikipedia wormholes, clicking link after link to find trivia I’ll annoy the husband with at dinner. This is why the first sentence of Steven Harvey’s “The Book of Knowledge” grabbed me because he described how his parents brought home a ten-volume set of The Book of Knowledge in 1952. Originally published in volume 13, number 2, of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, it is the concluding essay in Best American Essays 2013.

I could not help but think that Cheryl Strayed, this year’s BAE editor, put this essay at the end of the collection for a reason. Many of us know Strayed because of the writing she did about losing her mother when Strayed was in her 20s. Harvey’s mother shot herself when Harvey was twelve-years-old. Soon after, Harvey and his brother began a new life in Kentucky (they had been living in Illinois) with their father and a new stepmother. Harvey says directly that this new life was a good one. He grew up loved and taken care of.

Then, after he was married and had his own kids, his grandmother (his mother’s mother) gave him letters his mother had written to her during the last years of her life. He wasn’t initially interested in reading them, perhaps out of a fear they would disrupt that stable life he’d built for himself. He kept them filed away until 2010 when he was in his sixties and over five decades had passed since her death.

He plays with narrative style in this essay, providing some historical background on The Book of Knowledge while using the style of the children’s encyclopedia to ask and attempt to answer questions about life and death that no one can answer, especially in a set of reference books aimed at children. Like Strayed, he searches through his mother’s life and death for some kind of meaning. Though his sense of loss seems much more dormant than Strayed’s, the loss is still there, even as a man in his sixties who has led a happy life. And isn’t the essay the place for such searching, such questioning? Of course it is.

Some of my favorite quotations to pique your interest:

“I remembered almost nothing of my life or her life before the suicide except a few vivid flashes–images, really—with the rest blown away by her death, and for years I was resigned to my ignorance, and perhaps even content with it” (277).

“Armed with letters and a children’s encyclopedia, I was determined to know who this woman was and, with luck, claim a legacy of beauty and wonder from a devastating event” (280).

“When I was a boy, I lay in bed at night listening to my parents fight downstairs. The arguments began as conversation mixed with the clinking sound of ice in glasses, the words spoken softly, clipped and brittle, dipping to inaudibility when whispered. The clicking of tree branches that is prelude to the storm. Eventually the voices rose until the two were shouting and finally screaming furiously, the sound coming through the walls in unarticulated growls” (284).

“Suicide is about the survivors” (290).

“When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really–know her and miss her. Miss her, not some made-up idea of her” (293).

Essaying: Colleen Kinder’s “Blot Out”

I’ve been reading Best American Travel Writing 2013 and recently finished Colleen Kinder‘s “Blot Out,” originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Creative Nonfiction. It’s another one of those essays I had to finish once I started. She is a journalist who spends a month in Cairo. One day, she decides to wear a full niqab and black tunic on a Friday afternoon trip to a souq. That allows her to explore life in Egypt as both a woman who can pass as a local citizen and as a foreign tourist clearly marked as an outsider. The results (and the way Kinder writes about those results) are fascinating.

She provides a lot of rich, evocative details. The biggest surprise to me is how she is clearly treated as a woman whether in the niqab or not, but the specifics of her treatment depend on what she wears–or does not wear. While covered and appearing on the surface to be a local, a man grabs her ass. While uncovered and appearing on the surface to be a tourist, men yell “Big Dick” and “Sex” at Kinder and her friend, Tori. No matter what, she is accosted and harassed.

I’ll be teaching this book next semester in the second-half of our first-year writing sequence, the research course. I’m sure this is going to be one of the essays that inspires students to do research and dig deeper. It’s having that effect on me. Some of my favorite lines:

“These are the ways foreign women get down the street in Cairo. These are the tricks they share, the ways they teach me to ‘beige out,’ as one woman put it, to fog up the glasses, whenever outside. Outside is the sphere of Egyptian men” (51).

“The niqab begins to tempt me like a secret passageway–a way to be outside without actually being seen. At the end of a month in Cairo, nothing sounds more liberating than erasing myself from this place” (52).

“Instead, the first gasp comes from inside my veil when Tori and I pass a full-length mirror in the furniture mart and neither one of us appears” (56).

“I ask this souq the same question I ask all public places in Cairo: where have you hidden the women?” (57).

“There are places that feel like the answer to the question of why we travel in the first place, why we bother to trespass, crossing the lines that looks like fences. This place is one of my few” (58).

Essaying: Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls”

I’ve been reading the essays in Best American Essays 2013 randomly, so I never know what I’m going to get. Once I started Vanessa Veselka’s “Highway of Lost Girls,” I couldn’t stop until I was done. She left her home in New York when she was fifteen in 1985 (the same age I was that year). At first, she was with her twenty-one-year-old boyfriend, but she was alone after about six weeks. She hitchhiked around the country, which means she met a lot of long-haul truck drivers. She was molested by some and left stranded because she wouldn’t consent to sex with the drivers by others. Once, on I-95 in the Carolinas, she was held at knifepoint and forced into the back of a truck’s cab. She talked her way out of that situation. Decades later, a friend emailed her a link to a news story asking if the guy in it was the same guy who almost raped her. It was.

The man was Robert Ben Rhoades, and he was a serial killer in jail since 1990. But serial killer is actually a very empty phrase. The man tortured women. He killed men, but it sounds like he killed them either to get to the women or as part of the woman’s torture. And I do not use the word torture lightly, but that is what he did. I won’t provide any details here to prove that. The essay does it well enough. I will be teaching the book in my first-year composition course next semester, and I’m wondering if I should require this essay or keep it optional. In the past, when I’ve made certain essays optional and explain why, a lot of students end up reading them. And other students thank me for the warning and the chance to opt out.

But the essay is powerful not just because it documents crimes that often remain invisible, crimes that eventually led to the creation of the Highway Serial Killings Initiative in 2009. The essay is about memory and how a woman can find evidence of what (almost) happened to her without any police reports or other official documentation to start from. It’s about how far you will go to find the answers to your questions; for example, do you visit the man himself in prison? That’s the power of this essay, that we get to read a deep, thoughtful account of how one woman tries to reconcile what she has learned about what almost happened to her decades earlier with the adult life she has today. What is worth knowing? What is worth leaving behind? Who has been forgotten?

The essay appeared in GQ in November 2012, so you can read it now (and you should). Here are a few of my favorite quotations, the lines that I had to underline and will continue to reflect upon. Page numbers refer to where they appear in the book.

“That first ride was a preview of how it would often go for me with truckers–dodging sex and getting stranded–but I had learned one crucial lesson: When a truck slows down, you get up” (42).

“I needed visibility to stay alive” (42).

“The question of what you do with your old SWAT jacket when you retire had never entered my mind. Clearly the answer is: Make a throw pillow” (48).

“The more I learned about Rhoades, the more I saw parallels between us” (49).

“Everywhere I looked, evidence of these girls was disappearing” (52).

“It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims” (52).

“Recently, the New Jersey State Supreme Court handed down a statement on memory, describing it as complex and often unreliable. The ruling went on to question the admissibility of eyewitness testimony” (54).